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Unlocking the creative potential of UK Industry

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: ISCF, Support

The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) have published a paper that suggests how the creative potential of UK industry could be unlocked, to better respond to the challenges set out in the government's Industrial Strategy white paper.

A kid with a great idea, finger pointing in the air wearing a colander on his head with a glowing light bulb on top and wearing dark goggles.

Design has a vital role to play in the Industrial Strategy

We need to understand how organisations can generate, validate and develop ideas more effectively and efficiently.

The RSA paper argues that design has a vital role to play in this process and can help to unlock the creative potential of industry. In fact, it goes so far as to suggest that design should be considered as a sixth foundation of the strategy. It considers design not only as an output (the design of artefacts) but as an approach and a set of tools and processes that can be employed to address a range of innovation challenges.

young girl having an idea pointing up to a lightbulb drawn on the wall.

Design can help understand the nature of problems

Design can help organisations firstly to understand the nature of problems and then to solve those problems. It can help create desirable, fit-for-purpose solutions that align with genuine market needs. Furthermore, when applied strategically, design can help businesses to disrupt markets by focussing on future challenges and on demands to come, and not only those immediately felt.

Design brings the hard and the soft together

The opportunities for technological advancement highlighted in the Industrial Strategy will not only transform industrial processes, but will also trigger rapid and far-reaching social change. As technologies become increasingly embedded within our daily lives, the most successful innovators will be those who complement hard technical capabilities with a consideration of soft factors relating to human perception, motivation and behaviour. This represents a particular opportunity for design to add value.

As the paper says:

Design, with its emphasis on human-centred solutions, is core to an industrial ambition to innovate to meet changing needs and consumer demands.

young boy has a great idea, lightbulbs drawn on the wall behind him

Good design is good business

Because design encompasses a spectrum of disciples, and adds value in different ways - some of which are intangible and/or far downstream - it has proven difficult to measure its value contribution in a robust way. Nevertheless, a number of recent studies and reports (referenced in the RSA paper) have attempted, with some success, to do just that. These, along with the notable performance of design intensive firms on the global stage, combine to create a compelling evidence base for the value of design in industry. As Thomas J. Watson Jr., then CEO of IBM, noted as far back as 1973 - good design is good business.

The UK is recognised for its design excellence

Happily for the UK, we possess a design sector of enviable strength and depth. A 2015 Design Council study found that around 580,000 people were employed in the UK's 72,000 design businesses, with a further 1 million people employed in design roles across other sectors. The UK has long been recognised as a centre for design excellence.

young girl with a lightbulb above her head standing in front of a chalkboard.

Motive and opportunity

So, we have the motive and we have the opportunity. You might think UK industry would, as a matter of course, be embracing and embedding design within their organisations and innovation processes and reaping the rewards.

Still little or no use of design for the majority of UK firms

And yet… despite evidence of the value of design, and the capability of the UK's design sector to deliver that value, the uptake of design across industry has remained lower than might be expected. It's true that UK firms appear to use design more readily than those of our European neighbours, but the vast majority still use no or little design, or use design only as a final finish, where its impact and value is severely limited. There remains much to do if we're to fully realise the potential of design.

 boy wearing black goggles with a colander on his head with pressure gauges and wires, he is holding out his hands.

Design needs to explain and prove its value

I think we've been rather too quick to blame this lack of uptake on a weak evidence base and, accordingly, a lack of awareness and commitment on the part of businesses. The argument seems straightforward: design needs to explain and prove its value, then businesses need to sign up and get on with it. In reality, the nature of the challenge and, indeed, the most appropriate solution(s) require a little more consideration.


This has led us to a rather unhelpful situation where the design sector is encouraged to shout more and shout louder about their offer, and businesses feel that design is being pushed on them, with little empathy for their particular needs or situation. As any innovator (or, indeed, designer) knows: If the offer doesn't align with the needs of the customer, or if it's poorly communicated, no amount of promotion or sweeteners will make it stick.

Small girl behind a perpex wall drawing analysis images with the word 'Analysis' written in red.

A lack of evidence for design is no longer true

Building and strengthening the evidence base for design remains important, especially as the industrial landscape undergoes rapid change. Nevertheless, much has already been achieved and I believe it's no longer appropriate to claim a lack of evidence as a reason for the slow take up of design in industry nor, for any lack of recognition amongst policy makers.

Using design principles to make the case for design

At the heart of this opportunity is the need to influence behaviour change at scale. Appropriately, we need to be human centred in our response and adopt sound design principles. We must first understand the problem, adopt an empathic approach and engage multiple stakeholders to identify viable, impactful courses of action.

This process need to be informed by an honest and open public discourse. The RSA paper is an important starter for ten to engage stakeholders and spark this conversation.

7 recommendations for unlocking creative potential

The paper concludes with seven recommendations to help unlock the creative potential of UK industry, informed by interviews with key figures in industry, design, the public sector and the world of finance:

  1. Embed design into existing support and research provision for businesses wherever they sit on the ‘design ladder’
  2. Ensure that design support is accessible at a local level
  3. Share relevant research and insights between sectors
  4. Apply design to solving the Industrial Strategy Grand Challenges
  5. Ensure that design is discussed in a more open and accessible way
  6. Reduce perceived risk in investing in design
  7. Invest in broad design education that brings together design and business

Important, timely and provocative

These multi-stakeholder recommendations are important, timely and provocative. They are not intended to be complete or comprehensive. Instead, perhaps their greatest value is as a provocation for further discussion, and this is very much the intent of the paper. Doubtless, like me, you'll have your own ideas and opinions inspired by the paper's content and your own experiences.

Three business people literally bounding an idea ball around with their heads. The word 'idea' is on the ball.

Share your design thoughts with me

We all have much to gain from unlocking the creative potential of industry - whether as workers or citizens. I hope that the RSA paper will inspire you to consider this opportunity with fresh eyes and propose your own recommendations. I look forward to hearing them!


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  1. Comment by Sebastian Conran posted on

    These are excellent thoughts, however it is worth noting:
    1. Design comes in many flavours: from Industrial Design that transforms science & technology into customer/consumer experience and social culture, to Graphic Design that communicates visualy - and then Fashion Design feeds the garment industry, a leading global polluter.
    2. Good design is mandatory in the modern world; only Outstanding Design will ensure commercial success.
    3. Design companies do not have to be big - Apple employs less than 20 industrial designers and you could fit all its products onto a kitchen table - small doctor's or solicitor's professional practices function extremely well.

  2. Comment by Chris Stuart posted on

    What about the rich untapped resource of garden shead design and inventive brains and ideas???... it is impossible as a private person to safely get the protection and support towards intellectual design concepts...there should be a "walk you through, step by step" simple supportive process in place toward safe copyright and feasibility studies and production planning. I have 2 concepts for green energy that will easily be as big as wind energy globally but I will not disclose any info in competitions etc.
    Chris Stuart